Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Cut, cut but leave some fat
‘All writing is improved by cutting” was the muttered mantra of my redoubtable colleague, the art editor. And there he’d sit, sleeves rolled, in a dingy corner of old Westminster, hacking entire paragraphs from some poor scribe’s masterwork to allow more pictures or just more white space. A Marxist he may have been, a card-carrying modernist, obsessive typographer and, of course, cruel. But he was right. We all knew that as we bared our necks to his blade. All writing is improved by cutting, up to a point. Elmore Leonard was similarly right, and subtler, in famously advising writers simply to “leave out the boring bits”. Right, but not actually helpful, unless you already know which are the boring bits.
This question of superfluity has exercised art perhaps since Adam, certainly since this time last century. Which detail, which flourish, which luscious scene is essential, and which is simply surplus to requirements? Which is meat and which, by exception, fat? A famous British novelist, who shall remain nameless, once tried to write a novel without adjectives. Needless to say, it was an unreadable disaster, partly because a reader needs sensual support but, more interestingly, because human perception requires a little padding. A little, if you will, waste.
Waste is a hot issue. Not that it’s over, or even diminishing. As the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics report confirms, we’re fatter and wealthier, more heavily spare-bedroomed and ensuited, than ever. But waste has become something on which we frown. Planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption persist, absolutely. But they’re so last century. Now, even supermarkets, those ultimate enviro-criminals, attach a tiny parcel of guilt to every “just say no” supermarket bag, even if it is biodegradable. Even if it’s going to be your beach bag all summer.
This makes old-style waste-not-want-not thinking, rejected by baby boomers as wowserism of the worst sort, look not only valid but virtuous. Which is why, although we consume more than ever, we also recycle more; 10 times more than a decade ago. Frugalism is set to become the new morality; waste the new sin.
Which should make the minimalist flavour of contemporary architecture, an architecture with as much body fat as a Tour de France cyclist, also the way of the future.
But there’s a fly in this ointment. And it’s not just about the hidden environmental costs that such minimalism tends to drag in its wake. The more interesting paradox is that all human and much animal culture depends on superfluity. Waste may be bad but it’s also, in the form of elaboration, decoration, playfulness and excess, fundamental to both pleasure and progress.
Birds, for example. Increasingly, research shows birds sing for fun, as much as fecundity; amending, elaborating, exchanging and refining their song in ways and circumstances that cannot be explained by courtship or selection. They sing for sheer joy; giving glory, as it were, to God. Humans, same. The extra fabric, the elegant vestibule, the picked jonquils, the lazy afternoon: these are the grace notes that shift life from a grind into a sacrament.
At one level we know this. We know that “frivolities” such as delight and even beauty help make us connected and creative. In groundbreaking pursuits such as mountaineering and moonwalking we have no difficulty recognising this “because it was there” principle; that from play comes progress. That the useful can, sometimes, include the unpurposeful.
Classicism not only tolerated such superfluity – in space, decoration, material – but revelled in it. Modernism dumped this tolerance of difference, insisting that architecture be shaped only by dull, measurable constraints such as cost, structure and a straitened idea of “use”. This is ironic, in view of the fact that even John Stuart Mill, formulating utilitarianism in the 1850s, insisted that we should define “use” to include the agreeable, the ornamental and the pleasurable.
And yet the modernism with which we are still, broadly speaking, stuck took the Calvinist view of use as function. And it’s this view that has persisted, largely – and again, ironically – due to its easy fit with penny-pinching capitalism. So that now, even where there is obvious waste, as in the 15-room, five-car McMansion, it is waste without joy or grace.
What is the difference? It comes down, like so many things, to the nature-culture relationship. A culture’s grace notes are those refinements that connect us more truly with nature, rather than quarantining us from it. The faded veranda or limestone loggia, the spreading eaves or ivy-quilted lichgate; none has much more “function” than to modify light and emotion, shaping each to the other in a way that recognises nature’s bounty and gives thanks for it. Architecture’s way of saying grace.